Playing the music of the American Dream
By Richard Gaw
Well before he became the recording artist and the visionary behind the band Radio Free Honduras, Charlie Baran was known as Carlos Barahona, and when he was 10 years old, he started playing guitar.
In the agricultural hub of El Progreso, Honduras, Barahona worked with his father on a banana farm, but there were few opportunities to find a music teacher, so he became adept at stealing into quiet corners to practice on his own, trying to imitate the musicians he heard on the street. The thought of becoming a professional musician did not cross his mind until, at 17, he moved to San Pedro Sula to study music.
“There was a man in this city who had many instruments but nobody to play them,” Barahona said recently. “He was looking for musicians. I had two friends. One of them played the drums and the other played the guitar.”
From these accidental beginnings, the dream of a life in music was ignited. Becoming a founding member of the now-famous band Banda Blanca, Barahona eventually realized that he would not be able to make a living with his music in his native country. “In Honduras, at that time, to even get my music on the radio, I had to pay them to play it,” he said.
Such social and economic challenges made it impossible for Barahona to reach a global audience. Seeing himself as an ambassador for the rhythms of punta and merengue that shaped his youth, he set off for the United States in 1982, carrying little else besides his music and his dreams.
“My first journey to the United States was hard because I was walking,” he said. “I came on foot, by car, by bus, and when I reached the U.S.-Mexico border, I crossed the river. I walked. And then I ran.”
Barahona eventually reached Chicago, where he joined a band that was playing mostly at private venues like birthday parties and baptisms. Sensing the young man's talent and experience, the other musicians quickly identified him as their de facto leader, and began looking to him for guidance and inspiration.
“I was there to be the disciplinarian and teacher, getting the rest of the band to play in bigger and better places,” Baran said. “The first time we played at a bar, it was like a dream come true.”
Baran’s journey to success on the American music scene was not without disappointments and diversions. In 1989, after the death of the band’s keyboard player in a car accident en route to a gig in Orlando, Baran returned to Honduras to secure his residency papers. He ended up staying there for six years, waiting for his paperwork to clear.
By the time he returned to the U.S., Baran had accumulated an even larger repertoire of original songs that became the foundation for Radio Free Honduras, which was formed by Dan Abu-Absi with the explicit goal of performing Baran’s songs and recognizing the genius of his artistry. The appreciation between Baran and his band members is mutual.
“Before, when I played, I always had to tell people how I want things to sound,” Baran said. “Now, I’ve found people who have their own ability to add their parts. We are able to communicate in an organic relationship with the music.”
On Nov. 16, Baran will continue to tell his story at “Meet the Artist: A Conversation with Charlie Baran,” at the Kennett Flash from 6 to 7 p.m., followed by a concert at 8 p.m. The talk is free.
Radio Free Honduras is a collective of diverse Chicago-based musicians, all united under one goal – supporting the artistry of Baran and showcasing his talents. Founded by Dan Abu-Absi, longtime guitarist for JT and the Clouds and Birds of Chicago, Radio Free Honduras plays mostly Baran's originals, but their live shows often feature a wide variety of reimagined cover songs. Abu-Absi has gathered a large, revolving collective of some of Chicago’s most talented musicians; lively percussion, eclectic instrumentation and rich harmonies all provide the backdrop, allowing Charlie to do what he does best – stunning guitar work, tapping into what seems a limitless supply of energy and enthusiasm for music.
The synchrony of the band is clear in their eponymous debut album. The music of Radio Free Honduras both honors the traditions of Baran’s homeland and celebrates their delivery on an international stage. In the process, Baran has embraced his role as performer as much as he savors the process of composition.
Supported by the expertise and commitment of the other musicians in the band, and now playing stages both large and small throughout the United States, Baran has come to fully inhabit the elusive middle ground between his land of origin and the promise of the American Dream.
“I don’t care if the audience understands the Spanish lyrics, as long as they enjoy the music,” he said.
To learn more about Baran痴 story, to hear a sample of his music, and to get tickets for the Nov. 16 conversation and concert at the Kennett Flash, visit www.kennettflash.org.